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A Mother And Son Remember “Grandma Chief” : Gina Olaya and Kellen Quinton

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A woman stands outside, looking off into the distance.

Wilma Mankiller in June of 1992. Credit: Getty Images

About This Lesson

In 1985, Wilma Mankiller made history when she became the first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States.

She would lead for ten years, receiving numerous awards for her achievements, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In fact, in 2022 the U.S. Mint will feature Wilma Mankiller on a quarter.

During her tenure, enrollment to become a citizen of the Cherokee Tribe more than doubled, and she pushed to revitalize the tribe’s health care system.

She also helped broker a self-governance agreement in the 1990s, paving the way towards tribal sovereignty.

But at first, the transition into power wasn’t made easy for her. Her daughter and grandson, Gina Olaya and Kellen Quinton, came to StoryCorps to talk about how they remember her, and the challenges she faced when she first became Chief.

Originally aired October 8, 2021, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

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